Life of Caedmon
Caedmon is the earliest English poet known to us by name. What little we know of Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon Milton, as he is properly called, is taken from Bede’s account [Ecclesiastical History, IV, xxiv.] of the Abbess Hilda and of her monastery at Whitby. Here is a free and condensed translation of Bede’s story:
In the monastery of the Abbess Hilda, there was a brother distinguished by God’s grace for his ability to write poems about goodness and religion. Whatever Sacred Scripture was translated to him (because he couldn’t read) he quickly reproduced in poetic form of great sweetness and beauty. None of the English poets could compare to him, because he did not learn the art of song from men, nor did he sing through the arts of men. Rather, he received all of his poetry as a free gift from God, and as a result, he never wrote vain or worldly poetry.
He had lived as a layman until he was of mature age and had never learned any poetry. Indeed, he was so ignorant of singing that, at a feast where it was customary for each guest to sing in turn for the enjoyment of all, he would rise from his seat when he saw the harp approaching him and go home ashamed. Now, once upon a time, he did this at a particular festival, and went out to the stall to care for the horses, this duty being assigned to him for that night. As he slept at the usual time, one stood by him saying: “Caedmon, sing me something.” “I cannot sing,” he answered, ‘and that is why I came hither from the feast.” But he who spake unto him said again, “Caedmon, sing to me.” And he said, “What shall I sing?” and he said, “Sing the beginning of created things.” Thereupon Caedmon began to sing verses that he had never heard before, of this import: “Now should we praise the power and wisdom of the Creator, the works of the Father.” This is the sense but not the form of the hymn that he sang while sleeping.
Caedmon awoke remembering the hymn’s words and adding many more to them. He went to the steward of the monastery lands first thing in the morning and showed him the gift he had received while sleeping. The steward brought him to Hilda, who made him repeat the hymn he had written to the monks, and everyone agreed that God’s grace was upon Caedmon. To put him to the test, they read him a passage from the Bible in Latin and challenged him to turn it into poetry, if he could. He left humbly and returned the next morning with a fantastic poem. Hilda then welcomed him and his family into the monastery, made him a brethren, and ordered that the entire course of Bible history be expounded to him. In turn, reflecting on what he had heard, he transformed it into most delightful poetry, and by echoing it back to the monks in more melodious sounds, he made his teachers his listeners. In all of this, he aimed to turn men away from wickedness and lead them to a love of and practice of good works.
[There is then a brief account of Caedmon’s life, as well as a beautiful depiction of his death among the brethren.] And it came to pass [according to the simple record] that as he served God while living in purity of mind and serenity of heart, he left the world and went to see His face through a peaceful death.
Caedmon’s most famous work is the so-called Paraphrase. It is the storey of Genesis, Exodus, and a portion of Daniel told in glowing, poetic language, with a power of insight and imagination that frequently elevates it from paraphrase to true poetry. Despite Bede’s assurance that Credmon “transformed the whole course of Bible history into most delightful poetry,” no work is known. This Anglo-Saxon paraphrase was discovered and attributed to Caedmon in the seventeenth century, and his name is still associated with it, though it is now almost certain that the Paraphrase is the work of more than one writer.
Aside from the dubious question of authorship, even a casual reading of the poem places us in the presence of a poet rude indeed, but with a genius strongly reminiscent of Milton at times. The book begins with a hymn of praise and then tells of Satan and his rebel angels’ fall from heaven, which we are familiar with from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Then follows the creation of the world and the thrill with the old Anglo-Saxon love of nature.
Here first the Eternal Father, guard of all,
Of heaven and earth, raised up the firmament,
The Almighty Lord set firm by His strong power
This roomy land; grass greened not yet the plain,
Ocean far spread hid the wan ways in gloom.
Then was the Spirit gloriously bright
Of Heaven’s Keeper borne over the deep
Swiftly. The Life-giver, the Angel’s Lord,
Over the ample ground bade come forth Light.
Quickly the High King’s bidding was obeyed,
Over the waste there shone light’s holy ray.
Then parted He, Lord of triumphant might,
Shadow from shining, darkness from the light.
Light, by the Word of God, was first named day.
[Genesis, 112-131 (Morley)]
After recounting the story of Paradise, the Fall, and the Deluge,the Paraphrase is continued in the Exodus, of which the poet makes a noble epic, rushing on with the sweep of a Saxon army to battle. A single selection is given here to show how the poet adapted the story to his hearers:
Then they saw,
Forth and forward faring, Pharaoh’s war array
Gliding on, a grove of spears; –glittering the hosts!
Fluttered there the banners, there the folk the march trod.
Onwards surged the war, strode the spears along,
Blickered the broad shields; blew aloud the trumpets…
Wheeling round in gyres yelled the fowls of war,
Of the battle greedy; hoarsely barked the raven,
Dew upon his feathers, o’er the fallen corpses–
Swart that chooser of the slain! Sang aloud the wolves
At eve their horrid song, hoping for the carrion.
[Exodus, 155 ff. (Brooke)]
Aside from the Paraphrase, we have a few fragments of the same general character attributed to the Caedmon school. The longest of these is Judith, which is a poem that tells the tale of an apocryphal Old Testament text. We hit perhaps the most dramatic and brilliant stage in Anglo-Saxon literature when the valiant Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head with his own sword and throws it down before the warriors of her people, rousing them to fight and victory.